Ground drones that disrupt wildland firefighting

For the second time this week, hobbyists’ drones have caused wildland firefighters to shut down water- and retardant-dropping aircraft in the San Bernardino

Firefighting plane drops retardant.

Firefighting plane drops retardant.

Mountains.

In both cases, the fires grew while the hobbyists had their fun. Not only do drone hobbyists need to grow some brain cells, but they also need to be prosecuted for interference in public safety.

The first incident occurred Wednesday evening at the Lake fire, which has burned more than 30,000 acres near Big Bear Lake. The drone, said to have a 4- to 6-foot wingspan, forced a DC-10 tanker to be diverted to another fire in order to drop its load and two smaller aircraft to drop in another location in order to be light enough to land at the strip where the firefighting planes are stationed.

The second happened about the same time Thursday at the Sterling fire in the foothills above San Bernardino. Firefighting aircraft were grounded after two drones appeared on the scene. Sheriff’s deputies caught one drone’s “pilot,” but the other drone and its operator disappeared.

None of these were little drones from Toys R Us. They were large, fixed-wing types using sophisticated base stations and costing more than several thousand dollars. From this, it could be assumed that the drone operators interfering with firefighters are adults, not kids.

Moreover, they are adults who know better. A U.S. Forest Service spokesman generously speculated that they might have no idea what they are doing.

It is illegal to operate civilian aircraft in restricted airspace around wildfires. The Forest Service issued a reminder about it last year.

Drones in the right hands help wildland firefighters to map the direction, scope and intensity of fires. In the wrong hands, they interfere with firefighting and could cost lives. The operators, when caught and convicted, should get the maximum punishment, including time on a wildland fire line.

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